In last week’s address to the Urban Land Institute, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson made some bold promises to meaningfully deal with the region’s unaffordability plague. The Resonance Future of B.C. Housing Report offers plenty of ideas about what comes next.
By Chris Fair
Vancouver’s mayor has had enough of being hemmed in—by his city’s limited housing stock (gleaming, sub-750-sq.-ft. high-rise units or million-dollar single-family teardowns), and by the voting Boomers who consider cranes in their sight lines a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights.
For years, Mayor Gregor Robertson has touted density and pointed out supply shortages at countless community and council meetings, taking on NIMBYism and negotiating with developers, all the while watching helplessly as the required annual household income to buy an East Side townhouse climbed from $97,000 a decade ago to $175,000 today.
He shared such personal anecdotes and observations with more than 300 developers and business people at last week’s meeting of the B.C. chapter of the Urban Land Institute.
In a 45-minute speech, he charted a new vision for his leadership on affordable housing.
Maybe it was his nearly eight years in office giving him the confidence to risk re-election for the betterment of new—and increasingly vocal—constituents that he’s advocating for: those under 40, many with families, desperately trying to stay in the city they grew up in. He was glum and stern, calling the real estate lottery winnings of some and the exodus of so many others an indictment of a “failing city.” And a failing mayoral legacy, if he opts for the status quo.
IT’S NOT ABOUT SUPPLY, BUT VARIETY
The biggest bomb Robertson dropped was that Vancouver does not have a supply problem, long the cry of politicos and the real estate industry.
“We need to stop fixating on density because it’s not what this is about,” he said.“Density for density’s sake might just give us more empty homes.”
He noted that thousands of new units are going up and to market with luxury price tags that continue to make them inaccessible to working British Columbians.
Robertson also went all in on announcing changes to “single-family” neighbourhoods that are designed to increase housing diversity and affordability by filling this housing stock’s “missing middle”—the shortage of affordable duplexes, townhomes and row houses. He backed up the urgency with data from city staff:
- 70% of all current development proposals are for condos
- 16% are for rental apartments
- less than 10% are for subsidized housing
THE PATH TOWARDS ‘GENTLE DENSITY’
His plan focused directly on not only more supply, but variety of supply—call it “gentle density.”
The City is the biggest landowner in Vancouver and the Mayor noted six key sites could create in excess of 3,000 homes.
Mayor Robertson said there are big plans in development for Grandview Woodland and Joyce Street Station.
Priced-out constituents are asking for densification here, the Mayor indicated, but so are private speculators.
Vancouver is full of aging apartment blocks and mid-rises that need reinvestment. “Aging apartment buildings … desperately need reinvestment at a time when our vacancy rate is near zero,” he said. “Why aren’t we adding a fourth floor to the three-storey walk-ups that are all over the city?”
Mayor Robertson sees the current crisis as an opportunity to finally move past his largest resistors. “The time is right to advance this conversation and change these areas to provide homes for more families,” he said, noting that “the choice isn’t between change and no change, because the single-family home neighbourhoods are changing right now. We’re seeing character homes being razed and replaced with much larger single-family homes. So the essence of the neighbourhoods is already in great flux.”
This is all powerful stuff from the City, but the Mayor didn’t get into specifics about implementation, promising details in the coming weeks.
WHAT VANCOUVER SHOULD DO NEXT
Fortunately, our Future of B.C. Housing Report includes insights from Brent Toderian, city planning consultant with TODERIAN UrbanWORKs, president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism, and former director of city planning for the City of Vancouver. Toderian has long cited “gentle density” and housing stock variety as a blueprint for Metro Vancouver. His insight in the Future of B.C. Housing Report proved prescient to the Mayor’s firm direction going forward.
“We need more options, more ground-oriented density options that are compatible with single-detached housing, like secondary suites, laneway housing, row houses and stacked houses,” he notes in our report.
Zoning needs to accommodate families priced out of “family homes”
“Across the region, there’s a challenge to make sure zoning allows the kinds of housing types that provide variety and choice,” he says. “If zoning isn’t strategically reconsidered, we’ll continue to have a kind of polarized approach to housing choice: mostly low-density, single-detached housing, which is too expensive for almost everyone, or high-density multi-family housing near transit, which is certainly an attractive and positive choice for many, but won’t be chosen by everyone.”
Government and developers, we need more than just single-family homes and condos
According to the Resonance survey, ownership of any real estate in Metro Vancouver is an increasingly unattainable goal for renters, even though, B.C.-wide, 63% of them feel that homeownership is important. In Metro Vancouver, 88% of surveyed renters said they may never be able to afford a home. So how does a family with two or three kids stay in the city when they can’t afford a small, detached house? “Options,” Toderian says. “We need more options, including multi-bedroom apartments and ground-oriented density options that are compatible with single-detached housing–like secondary suites, laneway housing, duplexes, triplexes, row houses and stacked townhouses.” Essentially: less-expensive, low-to-medium rise intensification like one or two mortgage helpers per detached house, or street-level row-housing and walk-ups.
Zoning needs a foundation to work
“The regional leadership hasn’t necessarily been there consistently on housing variety and choice,” Toderian says. “I would like to see more regional leaders leading this kind of conversation about how diverse housing is important right across Greater Vancouver, not just in specific individual municipalities.” That Greater Vancouver is composed of 21 municipalities, and 13 of the province’s 30 most populous ones, only clouds the role of leadership, he adds.
“The challenge is that these zoning decisions are often seen only as local issues, and not at all within the purview of the regional level of government, which is technically true. However, the truth is that you have a regional need for more choice within our housing stock – for reasons ranging from sustainability to economic development. And even though the region has no direct authority on this, I think regional leaders have a greater position, a platform, to promote a healthy and much-needed conversation. They have various strategic tools, ideas and best practices that could benefit all municipalities and support a stronger region as a whole. It’s not just about authority – it’s about mutual support and creativity.
But zoning is a glacial process that needs sustained momentum from all sides. “The truth is that a lot of things are likely necessary before more flexible zoning will be successful,” Toderian says. “Things like a clearly-defined strategy and vision around ‘gentle density’ or missing-middle housing, and open discourse – including working with the media, facilitating public conversations, sharing ideas, and even providing training and support for local municipalities to learn from. We also need to acknowledge that most of the challenges for new housing choices are not planning challenges, but rather political challenges.”
To learn more about the sentiment of B.C. residents towards housing, plus the opportunities and threats to the provincial real estate industry, download your free copy of the Future of B.C. Housing Report, or get in touch with us.